The U.S. National Toboggan Championships are a midwinter festival for New Englanders afflicted with cabin fever. On the first weekend of February, 200 teams—including The Grateful Sled, Kevorkian's Alternative, and The Tobogganists Formerly Known as Prince—trudged up a slippery path hidden among birch stands near the Snow Bowl, a family ski area in the coastal town of Camden, Maine. One by one they rocketed down the 400-foot toboggan chute at 40 mph or so and fishtailed across the frozen pond below.
What began as a lark six years ago has matured into a serious—well, semiserious—sports event. It has proved so popular that organizers had to limit the field this year; they turned away more than 50 applicants. "When we started the championship we thought, Here's something so foolish that nobody can take it seriously," says Bob Chace, 49, a sailmaker who operates the event's electronic-eye timing device from his van parked on the frozen surface of Hosmer Pond. "Now look at us. We've got rules and protest committees."
The toboggan chute is an exact replica of one built on the same pitched hillside in 1936. The original went up when local burghers tried to make Camden a Down East winter resort modeled after Lake Placid and Sun Valley. In the depths of the Depression the organizers offered a free meal in exchange for a day's labor. "The whole town turned out," says Jack Williams, 69, an executive with a semiconductor company and the author of a two-volume history of Camden.
The recruits built the full complement of Alpine facilities for what would be called the Snow Bowl: a skate house, ski jump, rope tow and toboggan chute. The enterprise prospered until the hiatus imposed by World War II. After the war skiers and tobogganists returned, but by the late '50s the chute had rotted. It was rebuilt in 1959, but by 1964 it had rotted through again.
In 1974 IBM executive Arthur Watson, who had a vacation home in the area, donated chair lifts and T bars to the Snow Bowl to spiff it up. Still, some residents complained that the town-owned ski area cost too much to operate for the pleasure of a relative few. In 1990 Williams proposed a new toboggan run, to widen the Snow Bowl's appeal.
"How do you build a toboggan chute?" Williams says. "The only thing I had to go on were the old ones." He measured the rotted remnants and studied faded photographs. Sixty or so volunteers rebuilt the chute over a dozen Saturdays in the fall of 1990. They even re-created the hinged launching platform that slides tobogganists onto the track at a vertiginous angle. Williams took the first test run in January 1991. Competition began the following month. "We called it the U.S. Toboggan Championships," Williams says, "and nobody challenged us on it."
The founders may have named the event in jest, but it has quickly attracted national attention. This year, for example, four students from the University of Wisconsin at Madison drove 1,400 miles to participate for a single day. They slept in their borrowed van, competed Saturday, then drove all the way back to attend Monday classes. "This is so cool, we had to do it," said Lisa Nett, a senior forestry major from Shawano, Wis. "Our teachers are, like, 'That's a sport?' "
The championship has somehow evolved into an alfresco costume jamboree, akin to San Francisco's famed Bay to Breakers foot race. This year's field included a team cryptically named IDK. What does that mean? "I Don't Know," said Rick Migliore, who wore a Cat in the Hat topper decorated with shamrocks. How did you come up with it? "I don't know."
Last year four scientists from the Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole, Mass., wore a single eight-foot hat shaped like a squid. "I knew we had something going in our favor when we heard the crowd below chanting, 'Squid! Squid! Squid!' " said Jim Hopkins. What the crowd did not know was that the costume contained special effects. As the scientists departed the starting gate they released a smoke bomb to simulate the inky substance that squids spray at adversaries. This year the scientists dressed as an octopus. "We're still in the cephalopod family," said Hopkins, "but we're thinking sea urchin or sea slug for next year."
Because winners prevail by only hundredths of a second, teams scrounge for an edge. They slicken up their sleds with a smorgasbord of ski waxes and secret solutions disguised with code names like moose gel and whale lard. "I collect raccoons from the side of the road," Migliore explained with an impenetrable poker face. "I squeeze the intestines and boil them down to clear paste." For all the professional talk of secretly devised speed enhancements, some toboggans smelled suspiciously of Lemon Pledge.